I’ll admit that Brian Vander Ark’s vocals on the entirety of Villians soundtracked my early high school years, giving me plenty of reason to play the album and dozens like it on repeat as I navigated teenage awkwardness. Unfortunately the ’90s alternative rock scene wasn’t built on longevity, at least where myopic, aurally insensitive radio execs were concerned, and bands like the Verve Pipe, Harvey Danger and Semisonic never got the long-term traction they so richly deserved. It wasn’t that they couldn’t write another hit, but rather that radio and label honchos wouldn’t have known said hit if it broadsided them.
Thirteen years after their last full-length rock album, however, The Verve Pipe returns June 17th with Overboard, an album which relights the fire under their blend of well-crafted pop and catch-you-off-kilter rock. With “Crash Landing,” the album’s first promotional single, they show you really can’t go back again — this is no “Villians” or “Photograph” — but you can put a new spin on something and reinvent yourself in a way which is refreshing and well worth the listen. “I’m hearing words no one’s spoken,” he sings. “And I can feel my heart beat though I know it’s broken. Nothing is the way it seems, like being awake in a dream.” The chorus then crash-lands with an impact that launches this song instantly into the memory banks.
If you’re looking for the band to tread water through nostalgic carbons of what you heard while walking those sophomore hallways, you may be disappointed. But it’s refreshing to hear a band return after all these years, arriving with the verve to sound as fresh in the current musical climate as their alt-grunge did when we first heard it in the early ’90s. That the band’s songs feature hooks as brilliantly singable even after a decade and a half in limbo is the icing on the cake. Overboard is the most pleasant surprise of the summer so far, and it’s an album you shouldn’t miss.
Brooklyn’s Hurrah! A Bolt of Light! brings a sensational blend of U2 arena rock and Augustana-inspired pop to the table via the entirety of their self-titled debut album, due out April 1st. The band spent time with producer John Fields (Switchfoot, Soul Asylum, The Rembrandts) in Los Angeles working to get the sound right, and I’ll come out and say it: there’s not a dud on the album.
“In Over My Head” in particular is a shining example of what the band offers. “I keep my heart in a little box … I should have known there’d be hell to pay,” Will Farr sings, backed by shimmering guitars, thundering percussion and echoing hand-clap fueled backing vocals. And while he may feel as though he’s in over his head, listeners will fall head-over-heels as they sing along with this perfectly radio-ready nugget.
Help break this band wide and share the track now, available to stream and download exclusively at “Hear! Hear!” via the above link. It’s easy to say there’s nothing great making it to radio but it’s another thing entirely to sit back and let something this good slip away. (You can follow Hurrah! A Bolt of Light! on Facebook and Twitter.)
Welcome to The “Hear! Hear!” and Now Podcast, a twice-weekly showcase for new music which will feature reviews of singles and albums from across the pop spectrum. Check back Tuesdays and Fridays at “Hear! Hear!” or subscribe to our podcast via Feedburner or iTunes (coming soon) In the future this podcast may expand to include commentary as well as site exclusives, including full-album listens. But I want to expand this in ways which will excite you as listeners and discoverers of new music. So feel free to email me at any time, if you have suggestions for improving the podcast or ideas regarding bands you feel should be showcased.
The first band profiled here is Alive Way, a Lithuanian rock band already having built a name for itself overseas, both while touring festivals there and while competing (twice) for the Eurovision prize. Their new EP Footprints in the Snow blends the traditional holiday album with their own take on pop rock, making these songs worthy of radio play regardless of the season. You can hear more from the band at http://www.aliveway.net.
“I’M YOUR 911!” — Mumiy Troll’s “Swimming With Sharks” expands band’s hook-filled legacy, strongest English-language single yet
Read the “Hear! Hear!” interview with Ilya Lagutenko from last May.
It is fitting that Mumiy Troll’s latest single, “Swimming With Sharks,” builds its hook upon a surf-rock infused bass melody and a hook which catches you off guard with its insistent groove. Ilya Lagutenko’s giddy sense of pop-rock fun is catchy and makes this one of the band’s strongest singles yet, and their best by far in the English language. The video itself is pitch-perfect, proof of the band’s talent as Russia’s greatest pop export and more than enough reason to check them out if you’ve yet to take the plunge. Swimming with these sharks is all the more dangerous because there’s blood in the water, but what fun is there in always playing it safe?
Keep an eye out for the band’s 11th full-length, which they’re recording in English and Russian in between dates on their relentless touring schedule.
LET ME SHOW YOU WHAT A HERO DOES: DNA’s “Stonewall Jackson” breathes life into pop music with epic mythmaking
Saw these guys in Tell City, Indiana during their Schweitzer Fest performance the night before they laid down this spectacular live version of “Stonewall Jackson” at a show in Illinois. I had never heard the band prior to seeing their exceptional live show, yet I was singing along with this one instantly, the kind of thing which heralds a hit hands-down.
“Make ‘Stonewall Jackson’ the single and make station managers play it at knife-point,” I wrote in a quick email to the band after the set. “They’ll thank you for it later.” A month later I still agree. From the slow-burn guitar and keyboards opening to the frenzied chorus, the song’s got everything you need for a repeatable, ear-catching hook. And the rest of their songs fully live up to the hype, as fully laid bare on the band’s debut full-length Plenty of Thoughts.
There’s definitely plenty of room in the pop scene for a group of guys from St. Louis who have this much songwriting sense and the willingness to get out there and build a fan-base from the ground up. If you haven’t heard DNA, give the songa listen and then head over to their Facebook page. Then sit back and let your ears thank you.
Lift up your voices and say “Amen” as Paper Tongues lay down the best pop song of the year, bar none
You just gotta lay your weapons down
Forget about your problems
Just do you
No one else can solve them
That quote bears plenty of truth, but don’t underestimate the ability of a pop-heavy track to lift one’s spirits. Paper Tongues‘ “Amen is that song. Lay it all down and play this song, then repeat until it soaks into your soul.
Paper Tongues owe their career to a series of stunningly addictive tracks off their debut album Paper Tongues, which featured the infectious blitzkrieg attack of “Ride to California” — one listen made me an instant fan, as the audacious hook punched me in the throat, demanding I fist-pump as I gasped for breath. “If you were me, you’d do the same for sure!” lead singer Aswan North sneered and I had to agree. If I rocked like that, I’d write my own damned ticket.
Now they’re back, bigger than ever but without the weight of a major label holding them back. It’s all about the music, and with hooks like this who needs anything else? You best believe they’re bringing flaming nuggets of pop to your headphones, so when their EP Crowd Surfing hits next week you’ll be ready. Music today is all about virality, and in the case of “Amen,” you won’t be able to hold your tongue, paper or no.
A Lion Named Roar ready to put Louisville on the map with “This Won’t Last For Long,” MTV Buzzworthy single
Louisville’s A Lion Named Roar brings the best of Augustana and Kings of Leon to bear in a hearty mix of pop and rock you’ll be singing at top volume long before the first play ends. “This Won’t Last For Long” is ready-made pop-rock bliss, making it no wonder the band’s already had MTV Buzzworthy accolades and a spot on the Louisville Palace’s Faces At The Palace show with Field of Kings and The Foxery, this Friday the 19th. The band’s album Foreign Land doesn’t come out until November 27th, but if the rest of the album’s as good as the lead-off single, this is going to be a real winter keeper.
At long last the new Wallflowers single “Reboot The Mission” is available to stream via Rolling Stone, and tomorrow you’ll be able to find it for free download at thewallflowers.com. The new single off the band’s upcoming album Glad All Over, due out in October, is their first since 2005’s Rebel, Sweetheart, and showcases the band revamping its sound to be both retro and modern. The goal, says Jakob Dylan, was to be “a rock band that could make a dance track too, without crossing over to the extreme side,” and by bringing in the Clash’s Mick Jones to play guitar and contribute guest vocals, the result is a perfect blend of Some Girls-era Rolling Stones with hints of early Clash.
It’s hard to imagine Joe Strummer wouldn’t have had fun with this one. Though it is still way too early to get a sense of what the whole album’s going to sound like, but if you’re going to reintroduce yourself to the world of pop music in the year 2012, clearly the Wallflowers had the right idea here: go for the throat with a solid hook while pushing your own musical envelope in directions your band hasn’t yet taken. It’s unlikely the single’s going to get much radio play — nothing good does these days. But it’s replayable, ear-catching and an overall invigorating listen which bodes well for the band’s future. I, for one, can’t wait for my chance to hear this live!
One listen to “Automatic Lover” by Moritat showcases that there’s plenty of great stuff to be done with chilled-out electronic-pop fusion. This is a song which morphs numerous times during its seven minutes, constantly shifting to keep listeners on our toes. The great thing about Clill Blanzin, which has only been out for a little over a week, is that Chicago’s Moritat, a power-trio which clearly doesn’t like to repeat itself, knows how far to push an audience before pulling back and shifting musical directions.
As a band, Moritat consistently experiments with its sonic palate, making lazy comparisons seem pointless. “Cats,” the single off the new album, provides the most radio-worthy track on the entire LP, but even that song is a genre-bending experiment in how much depth and creativity casual listeners will put up with to find a hidden gem. Here’s hoping, as I have long believed, that listeners are far more open to new things than most industry folks give credit for. Moritat isn’t always the easiest band to love from the first pressing of the play button, but the fact that they can put out hard-driving pop-rock and grooving experimental electronic-based fusions on the same album deserves wider notice.
I have been a fan of the All Ways ever since I first heard their cover of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” last year and wrote them up here at “Hear! Hear!” … twice! They auditioned for America’s Got Talent by performing the Adele cover … a smart move, considering it’s their big claim to fame. But it’ll be interesting to see if America buys in and falls in love with the band when they start playing their own songs. My vote is for “Jaguar,” their latest single, which is catchy and upbeat, bringing together the band’s obvious love for eighties rock with their more modern pop-punk leanings. Either way, it ought to be fun to see a “Hear! Hear!” Artists To Watch act making good on national television. Hopefully this will put them a step closer to recording an album for national consumption.
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How far do you think these guys will get in the competition? Sound off in the comments below! You can catch them live on America’s Got Talent on Tuesday the 10th at 8 p.m. EST, the first of the top 48 voting rounds.
For those bands out there making interesting music for audiences too small to have already launched a wider conversation, I present to you: “This One Time On Bandcamp.” This ongoing series, under the header of Artists to Watch, is meant to feature bands you haven’t heard — bands making music in the underground or without the resources to push for wider general exposure. The idea isn’t to say these bands are the greatest you’ll ever hear, or to suggest that every band featured is your next radio superstar in training. The idea is to spark a conversation. If we all are the gatekeepers, it’s time we start digging deeper, rather than simply waiting for a band to sign to a label and hire hot-shot publicists to tell us what we should be talking about.
Case in point: Coasta … a band with an unassuming self-titled EP to their name and little else to hang a hat on. But the music’s particularly ear-catching, despite the lack of forward motion behind their promotion. These Long Island musicians apparently met at Rogue Studios and recorded this effort as part of an impromptu jam session. This is pop-rock with hooks to spare, front-loaded with jangly guitars reminiscent of bands like the Slip, matched with vocals to rival Northern Room, one of the stronger indie pop bands I’ve followed over the years. “Sirens” and “Sunzat” are particularly riveting listens, but the entirety of Coasta EP warrants a stream or ten, once you let these melodies sink their teeth in.
What do you think? Sound off below! And if you have
any suggestions for future “This One Time, On Bandcamp” features,
email me a link to a stream of a single or album. I’m always
interested in discovering new music.
Mumiy Troll has had one of the most interesting career trajectories of any rock and roll band you’re liable to hear. Formed in the early 1980s in Vladivostok, Russia, the band was deemed socially dangerous by the Soviet government, yet managed to become the most dominant pop-culture phenomenon the nation has seen. Globally recognized as the example of Russian pop music, the band now has set its sites on that holy grail: the American audience. Their latest effort, Vladivostok, picks up where 2009’s all-Russian Comrade Ambassador left off, bringing the band’s classic rockapops sound to bear through English rearrangements of some of their most popular songs.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with lead singer Ilya Lagutenko about the band’s wide-ranging career and how they intend to conquer the American rock audience without losing their original flavor in the translation.
Many of the songs on Vladivostok have been released before in Russian versions on albums including Comrade Ambassador. Were there any songs on the new album which were written first in English?
There is a track called “Lightning” which was initially written in English, so we don’t have a Russian version of that song. But the challenge for us was how to make a compilation of tracks which would really reflect the current state of the band. I really had a hard time putting together a certain number of tracks in English for the person who doesn’t have the experience of enjoying the songs already in Russian.
We’d thought about how that music would appeal to the listener who wasn’t ready to hear the songs in a foreign language. What has been particularly challenging about this album was that we replayed these songs together, rewriting with changes in tempo and arrangement, because you can’t just translate the meaning of the lyrics. You have to write a whole new story or it doesn’t work, especially with rock and roll.
As for the language variations, though, I’ve dealt with this for the last ten years. In our case, I’m really well prepared for fan criticism: “I remember when you played this song in a demo in 1997, and I really loved that sound.” When we tour different places I’ll try to play at least some songs in the native language even if they aren’t necessarily our songs, just to feel a different kind of connection with an audience.
I read that you used to hear your music was too Western for Russian audiences. Are you hearing the opposite now, that you’re too Russian for American audiences?
To be honest, I’ve never heard that we sound too Russian for American audiences, because I guess American audiences really don’t know that much about Russian music. There’s really not that much you can learn about Russian pop music in general, let’s be fair about that. You have to understand the way of life in Russia.
Sergei Zhuk, a professor of Russian History at Ball State University, wrote a book, Rock and Roll in the Rocket City, which suggests Rock and Roll helped bring down the Soviet Union. It wasn’t so much that Western music was finding ways to reach Soviet youth, but that the apparatchiks would bring the music home and their kids would spread it through the black market for personal profit.
That’s an interesting idea, because I still remember the first TV reviews of the state of rock music in my hometown, and one phrase became so popular because a famous Russian reporter said: “No one could ever make money off this rock music in Vladivostok.” And we still laugh about that today, because I guess there are ways to make anything self-sufficient.
What was it like being dubbed “socially dangerous” despite your music rarely delving into political subjects?
It was really a good compliment in those times, because being noticed is very important for a teenager who starts playing music. To be noticed in a rebellious way is probably even better! We knew criticism was coming not from really knowing us. It was from people who didn’t know what we were really about. They just heard our name and it sounded so strange, like Black Sabbath or the Sex Pistols.
A few years later we had an interesting situation when we got a request to play a club in Denmark. We said: “Sure, why not? But how do you know of us? We’re not well known over there.” And they said: “Oh, because we’re the best venue in the country for death metal!” They didn’t even know what we were playing, they just liked the name Mumiy Troll and thought it suited their goals.
Now it’s easier, you just Google Mumiy Troll and you’ll know what we sound like. I remember one day I was going through customs in the United States and the guy was looking at his computer. And I was curious, what are they looking at on those computers – an FBI or CIA database? And he asked: “What do you do? You’re a musician?” And he turns the screen to me and asks: “Is that you?” He’d Googled my name, and the band page popped up with YouTube information!
Do you think having all the music available online has helped Mumiy Troll attract a more global audience?
I guess in general it is a way to do that. But at the same time, right now you have zillions of bands online so you need a good guide to be introduced to listeners. Any new band, like us, in the United States has the same challenge – how do you direct fans to your music?
How have fans reacted to the new album?
To be honest, I don’t really know yet. The album hasn’t been available to anyone yet and we can only judge from a few comments online or the audiences coming to our gigs. The people coming to see us live in the United States enjoy the shows, but that could be because of the music or because they’re enjoying mixing with the Russian girls in the audience. Where else can you get this chance?
What would you want audiences to take from the new songs?
I like them to follow us further, so for me it can be hard to understand what people find to be meaningful in my songs. Most of the time I’m not sure when I’m writing that what I write or perform is going to be interesting to a general audience. Then the real people give you their life story, how they connect to the music.
I heard this story that Russian police, when they killed a sniper in Chechnya, a 16 year old girl shooting at them, she’d been listening to Mumiy Troll on her Walkman. That kind of story can make you really think about your audience. I also remember playing a morning radio show in San Francisco. We did a couple of acoustic songs live, and this couple in their seventies came to me: “We’re pleased to meet you, because this was the first time ever in our lives we’ve been able to meet a real Russian.” All this time spent in the Cold War mentality, they’d remembered hiding in bunkers under “red alert,” and now they liked our songs. We were just normal people! I don’t want to sound too political, but it’s musical diplomacy.
One entry point to your music I’ve noticed is the sense of humor. When you watch a Mumiy Troll video, we can tell you enjoy every bit of the process. How do you keep things fresh after so many years as a musician?
The first rule, it never hurts, is that we’ve decided its too boring to practice songs. If you play it too much, you lose the whole enjoyment factor. That’s why I don’t enjoy many live shows these days. What keeps our band together is that I don’t want to let my bandmates sit on their laurels, or their lives become too easy in Russia. That gets us nowhere. We have to feel the excitement as if it’s our first show every time. I remember when we first played in Mexico, it was cool that by the second or third song people were jumping around, enjoying the music when they’d never heard anything like us before.
You once were quoted as saying: “You can’t speak one language to the entire world, you have to learn from each other.” What advice would you have for American bands hoping to open their music up to a global audience?
Someone once asked our guitarist: “Is there any advice you’d give American guitarists they could only get from a Russian?” And he responded: “Yes, they could learn how to drink Vodka.” But I guess to conquer the United States, for bands around the world, is one of those “top five ambitions” everyone has, because Rock and Roll was invented in America, not Siberia.
But at the same time there are no rules. It is a body which grows and we don’t know where it will go tomorrow. We take what touches us as individuals and make it our own. I’ve never liked those guitarists who play really fast; I want to hear the notes, even if it’s just one chord. Yet in a band you’ll have four people with different views on how to make music, and there’s this unexplainable process of delivering your own music to an audience. We make it work the best we can and hope someone out there listens.
Silver Tongues – “Black Kite” (2011, Karate Body)
Louisville’s hidden treasure Silver Tongues, and their debut album Black Kite, serve as a glorious throwback to classic rock bands, where a debut album could freely experiment by dabbling in multiple genres. Today’s bands so frequently have to hit the ball out of the park on the first try and then repeat the success or fail to gain traction in the business, but Silver Tongues seem to take pleasure in twisting listeners’ expectations. There’s nothing taken for granted, and it’s not as if the band’s taking unnecessary risks with their musical direction. They’re just willing to admit that, when a band’s getting its feet wet, sometimes there’s nothing more valuable than pushing the envelope and trying a variety of sounds. And with an independent label backing them up, it’s a safe bet they’ll get the chance to build their musical reputation on their own terms. This is the work of a band which may not find its “hit” until a third or fourth album, but give them that time to grow and the rewards will be immesurable.
Not that I’m saying their songs aren’t worthy of wide exposure, because that would be a mistake. “Wet Dawg” sounds like Kings of Leon if they actually dared to let a song speak for itself rather than burying the lead in a mess of pseudo-pop trappings. What makes it clear Silver Tongues is worth supporting is their ability to transform the song into an addictive live gem. I was lucky enough to catch the band live at Headliners in Louisville back in January and, even as a co-opening act playing before the supposed “big draw,” they immediately roped the crowd in with a live performance which showcased the music above the hype. There’s plenty of pop hook buried in there to keep the songs reverberating in your head, but that the band’s out there working the road and building these songs in a live setting as well proves they’re not happy merely letting the studio versions speak for themselves.
Speaking to the album’s quality, however, is the fact that every song plays its role in the cohesion one finds immediately appealing about Black Kite. “Warsaw” would be perfectly at home on a Coldplay album, with its frantic string backdrop, but the vocals are pure seventies classic rock, with layered harmonies and an arrangement coupled with a slow-build climax which is immediately accessable and repeatedly listenable. The album’s opener, “Highways,” has an unforgettable backdrop of organ drone and handclaps-meet-bass-drum percussion, providing a thunderous reason to immediately fall in love with what the band has to offer. And the album’s title track, “Black Kite,” and the beautifully melodic “Hope For” manage to successfully bridge the gap between bands like Mumford and Sons, with the ethereal vocals and simple acoustic arrangements, and today’s more modern pop-leaning bands where the hook comes first above all else.
The result is a nine-track album which plays well both as a coherent, well developed debut and a template for a band willing to push its exploratory envelope in pursuit of a long-term career. Black Kite came out too late in 2011 to make my list of best albums of that calendar year, but it has already won a place in my heart as one of the most interesting efforts I’ve heard during this one. I expect to hear big things from this band; like the Black Keys before them, they seem destined to build a respectable basis for long term success on their early indie records. And with the right push, they’d seem poised to have a similar mainstream breakthrough once their material has time to develop to its full potential. Put simply, Silver Tongues is a keeper, and their impressive debut has legitimate heft and staying power. You won’t want to miss it!
Upon first listen, there seems to be little out of the ordinary about Washington D.C. pop-rock artist G’ra Asim, but subsequent repeats of “Speak Too Soon” reveal a sunny pop song which will quietly take over the space between your ears and leave you ready for more. He recently released a video for the song (below) which definitely takes the middle ground between the pop-punk of the All American Rejects and the more adventurous pop of Ben Kweller. Though there’s nothing here which immediately screams out “G’ra!” there’s plenty of time for him to make his more unique sound-stamp a part of his music. Here’s hoping he releases a lot more soon!
Year of the Album — #085
The Trophy Fire – “Modern Hearts” (2011, Greyday)
The hooks might get them through the door, but Modern Hearts features music barely half as memorable as Trophy Fire thinks it is.
There’s a lot about the Trophy Fire’s Modern Hearts that I liked, and much of it lied in the strong musical hooks these songs offered up. But the album as a whole left me feeling cold, and it wasn’t just because the best song on the album was a cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeats.” In the end hooks alone aren’t enough to live by, and this blend of energetic alternapop came up short in the long run. You can read my entire review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #046
Graham Colton – “Pacific Coast Eyes” (2011, Independent)
Graham Colton’s been around the block more than a few times, and on Pacific Coast Eyes, his first full-length solo album since 2007’s Here Right Now, he picks up right where he left off. A labor of love for the Oklahoma City native, Pacific Coast Eyes is a refreshingly infectious pop confection, bringing together the best of Augustana and Counting Crows with a musical flair all his own. Highlights include the title track and “1981,” which may be his most radio-ready pop hook yet. “When [I] saw her she was walking on water,” he sings of a lost love, painting the past through rose-colored glasses as he wonders of a life that veered from what he’d expected. Musically the album looks at nineties-era pop-rock through similar nostalgic overtones, and it’s all the better for it. “I am no magician, I have no crystal ball,” he sings on “Twenty Something,” but when it comes to crafting earcatching pop music, he’s running circles around the competition.
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Pacific Coast Eyes is available for a limited time
as a name-your-own-price download at Noisetrade.
If you’re into music that’s something of a cross between Coldplay and Kings of Leon, with a lot of crunchy pop-rock hook to keep you coming back for more, Seattle’s Roman Holiday might just be the band for you. Said to have been “birthed in a recording studio” (1) by Tacoma’s Weekly Volcano, it’s hard to argue with the band’s radio-ready blend of staple 90’s alterna-rock and modern radio sense. Too bad radio doesn’t play anything good anymore, but that’s what the Internets are for!
The band self released its debut album in May of 2010, titled Paint This Town (2), and they’ve released a pair of EPs in the past. Here’s hoping they keep up the solid pop songwriting, because with the current state of the music industry these days, all the record executives will need something poppy to cry to when they realize which band they let get away.
Check out their latest single, “The Long Way Home,” on YouTube below:
And if you’ll be on the west coast, check them out live! They seem like the kind of band which would have good chemistry in a live setting.
March 25: The Good Bar (Ventura CA)
March 26: On The Rox (West Hollywood CA)
April 22: Someday Lounge (Portland OR)
June 4: Tagaris (Richland WA)
Learn more on the band’s Official Website: http://rohoband.com
It’s rare that a sophomore album has the power to truly surprise listeners, but such is the case with Andrew Ripp’s She Remains The Same, which, contrary to its name, does more to propel his career forward sonically than any album I’ve heard from an indie artist in years. By embracing the blues sound he only hinted at on his debut 50 Miles From Chicago, and through the deft production touches employed by Dave Barnes, Ripp has crafted a sound that is invigoratingly original.
Even more impressive is the way Ripp has managed to address his burgeoning sense of spirituality in a context which does not at any point become preachy. This is the kind of contemporary Christian music most CCR artists only dream of being able to craft. The album oozes crossover appeal, and the quality of the songs is exceptional. This may well be the most crossover-ready Christian-themed record since Jars of Clay’s self-titled debut in 1995.
The album’s potential “Flood” is single-ready third-track, “Star.” It builds from a breezy country-rock opening to a full-throated hook of a chorus that has the ability to reverberate in a way bands like Coldplay and the Fray used frequently to dominate pop radio.
But the album is chock full of potential singles, so the debate may rage among fans long into the album’s promotional cycle. Should “Savior,” the album’s strongest “rock” effort get the push, with its exceptional distillation of the Christian message that God truly is everywhere, if we’re only open enough with our spirituality to sense Him? Or perhaps he should focus on “Peace Like A River,” which has the hook to draw in country fans with its down-home Memphis sense of personal spiritual reflection.
Even the album’s opener is single-ready, the kind of fun, catchy pop exercise that Christian acts have been building into top 40 hits for years, with an infectious chorus that’s sure to inspire many a sing-along.
What really stands out, though, about She Remains The Same is that it holds up well as an album because of the way Ripp explores his spiritual feelings without it sounding like he’s talking down to us as listeners. He’s going through what we’ve all gone through, and we’re hearing the journey in his music, rather than him telling us he’s reached a destination, that he’s got it all figured out. Clearly he doesn’t have it all figured out, or there’d be no point to putting the words to paper.
That he manages to walk that line, merging the spiritual and pop world to create something meaningful on both planes is the truly impressive thing about this album. Ripp isn’t looking for fame, he’s said. He’s looking to express his thoughts on real life experiences in a way which might resonate with his listeners and draw them into thoughtful discussion. Somehow on his journey he’s stumbled onto the recipe for the perfect album to do exactly what he’s set out to do — and it may bring him the fame he wasn’t even looking for.
From start to finish, She Remains The Same is a pop-rock gem, one worthy of finding a rapt audience. More importantly, by not talking down to his fans, Ripp may actually be able to reach them, which makes the album a contemporary Christian masterpiece. One can only hope this is something other artists will want to emulate.
Andrew Ripp may be better known for the songs he’s written for others than for the one album he released under his own name in 2008. He co-wrote half of Ryan Cabrera’s 2005 album You Stand Watching, including “You Shine On,” which actually made Billboard’s Hot 100.
But on his own, Ripp has made enough of an impact for fans of the Palatine, Illinois, songwriter to realize he’s got the pop music chops to craft meaningful lyrics around mind-bending hooks that demand repeating. His live shows are eclectic enough, whether he’s solo or with his full backing band, to siphon audiences away from the headliners they’ve come to see. Fans of Stephen Kellogg, Fiction Family and even Robert Randolph have been won over by his distinctive pop-rock performances.
Now, with his sophomore album She Remains The Same set for release on September 21st, Ripp gets the chance to expand his audience while experimenting with deeper explorations of the blues idiom, merging the sounds of New Orleans with contemporary Christian-tinged lyrics which dare to be introspective without becoming overtly preachy.
Ripp took the time to sit down and speak with me this week about the new album, his songwriting process, and his take on the value of pop music.
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You’ve said the new album’s about “truth, faith and finding a way to find hope in what’s painful.” Do you think you were successful in that?
I really hope so. That’s what we were going for. I call it “speaking life,” and what I mean by that is speaking truth as much as I can. My relationship with God is very important to me and I’ve matured in that relationship over the last couple years. And that’s been the timeframe during which I wrote much of this new record. That’s been a main focus for me. Through my story and my life experience, that’s where my songwriting inspiration comes from.
It must have been interesting working with Dave Barnes, if that was the mindset you were coming from. I know he’s worked with Ed Cash, and Ed Cash has worked with Caedmon’s Call and Bebo Norman. I’ve spent time talking to Bebo in the past, and these all seem like guys who know what they’re trying to say and why they feel compelled to share it without feeling like they’re beating you over the head with their Christianity.
Yeah, you have to be careful about how you present it . . . but I think if you’re being honest, it doesn’t matter because it’s one thing to just talk about things you’ve gone through and it’s another to get preachy. I think that’s where those guys do really well. They just talk about their own experiences, rather than telling someone what they should personally be doing. You know?
Well, I really enjoyed the preview of “Savior,” off your new album. It reminded me a lot of Marc Broussard. But I loved the line: “I found my Jesus on a city street / He gave me freedom through a trash-can beat / Some kind of symphony . . . Don’t worry ‘bout me, ‘cause I know where I’m going.” I just found it really refreshing to hear a Christian message coming across without sounding forced.
I’m glad you picked up on that. A lot of people have asked me what that tune is about, and it’s just about seeing that you can find God in people who don’t even know who God is, or who don’t even claim that there is one. From my viewpoint, we’re all created by Him, and I think depending on the way we look at people, we can find God in anyone, even in the guy who’s standing on the street corner, playing the drums. That chorus is just making the statement: “I know where I’m going when I’m gone.”
I know you’re from Chicago, and your last album was called Fifty Miles From Chicago, but the new material on She Remains The Same sounds more like Fifty Miles From New Orleans. Have you been focusing more on the blues sound within your music?
It’s more of a Southern deal, which makes sense, as I’m living in Nashville now. So that had a lot to do with it, and a lot of the players on the record who make up my backing band are from the South. Dave [Barnes] is from the South. And I just love country music, but my voice has more of a “soulful thing,” so when you put all that together that’s the sound we wound up with.
A lot of the last album sounded like what we were hearing on the radio, the Jason Mraz sound, or Ryan Cabrera. This album sounds more down home, like you’re finally singing what’s comfortable to you.
That’s definitely what’s going on. If there is a single on this record, it’s this song called “Star,” which is geared toward that kind of “modern radio” sound. But it wasn’t about that with me, spreading my music around, because I’m not in that position. I’m not with a label, I’m totally on my own. So even if I do have a smash, break-out single potentially on this album, what am I going to do with it? What I’m trying to do right now is build a solid following of people who like good music.
I’d talked to Hanson a couple weeks ago and they’re going through the same thing. They’re completely independent, they know they’re not going to have a hit, they just want to make music that says what they want to say.
Yeah, and they’re in a great position because they’ve got like a million fans who still actually buy their records! Which is amazing that they’ve been able to do that. Have you been to their shows?
Man, they’re so awesome. I say that, and I’ve done a writing thing with them, in this writing group called “Fool’s Banquet,” which they put on once a year. And they definitely know how to write a song. And even if they never have another hit, it’s okay.
I don’t know if you read Bob Lefsetz’s stuff, he’s a blogger in LA who’s really savvy and smart about where the music industry is headed these days. But Lefsetz is talking about how the “new radio” is just pumping great video out, constantly putting out great new material. It’s not even about radio anymore. How many people actually listen to radio anymore anyway? It’s a weird thing, but it’s exciting, for people like me, because you don’t actually have to have that big single anymore. It’s more about writing great music and just continuing to get it out there. The internet makes it accessible to the entire world from your bedroom, and great stuff spreads . . . it takes time, but it spreads.
Tell us a little about your songwriting process. What makes a song meaningful to you, and how do you go about getting that feeling out on paper?
It comes in all sorts of ways. For me, a lot of great ideas come while I’m driving. There’s really no secret to it though, you just have to recognize when you have a great idea and make sure you document it so you don’t forget it. Sometimes a title for a song comes first, but other times it’s just some really cool chords or a groove that you think of. You’ll be messing around with chords on the guitar and there’s really no right or wrong way to do it.
For me, in order for me to connect with a song, it just really has to be “truth,” coming from something I’ve experienced. It’s hard for me to write just a fun song about something that hasn’t happened, just telling a fictional story about something. I’ve tried to do that, it just doesn’t work for me. But the more I dig into what I’ve gone through and what those emotions bring out, the better the song.
What would you say makes a strong pop album?
Pop music, to me, is just “popular” music; it doesn’t have to be cheesy. All pop music isn’t cheese. I consider my music to be pop-rock, but a lot of people think of pop and it’s just Katy Perry all day long and that’s just not the case. Although I don’t know if you’ve heard her record, but it’s awesome.
You can have the guilty-pleasure pop, but if you malign the entire scope of pop music because you don’t like one kind, you’re going to miss a lot.
Oh, yeah. Absolutely . . . and I’m not afraid of it! I used to be afraid to call my music pop, but whatever. I love a good strong pop song. I love a Katy Perry song. I don’t necessarily see my career going in that same direction, but that’s okay. I’m glad somebody’s doing that.
What do you hope your fans will take from the new album?
I hope my voice comes through. On the first record, I don’t think my voice came through a hundred percent, so I hope my voice shines on this one. There’s a lot you can take from hearing the raw passion from somebody’s voice, and that’s something I felt like I needed to take to the next level on this record.
I was impressed seeing you open for Stephen Kellogg, it was just you and a guitar, and yet you drew the crowd in! And I know, Stephen Kellogg’s fans are about as rabid as anybody. You knew they were there to see him. Is it hard to be there playing as an opening act when you know the audience is there waiting for the “main event”?
Honestly, I don’t really know much other than being the opener at this point in my career. I could headline in maybe five different markets. But my main thing the last two years has been to really focus on the act of touring. I was living in LA for a long time, and LA was all writing. There was no touring scene out there.
But the second I finished working on that first record, I knew I needed to move away. So me and the band moved back to Chicago, where I was from, to start touring. Out in California everything’s so far-flung; you can play LA, and maybe San Diego, but where are you going to go from there? You’ve got so much driving. But the midwest is laid out to where every two hours you’ve got another city, which is great for building an audience.
And it’s a different music scene. In LA, my kind of music really didn’t make sense, nobody really understood it. Everybody in LA is trying to reinvent the wheel, and that’s not how I was made.
And it’s been a long time since the Bakersfield Country sound was big out there.
Exactly. So we moved back to Chicago and started touring, and that was really my first time on stage, actively working to build my fan-base. I had no fans. The only people who knew my music were the people who knew me. So we needed to get out of that world and start the journey.
So I’m excited. This is our second record, and finally we do have legitimate fans out there . . . the base isn’t huge, but it exists now and it’s cool to have something now to build on. That first record it was a matter of just putting it online, we didn’t have an official “street date,” it just became available.
What do you wish someone would ask you but they never do?
I don’t know. At some point in every music career you end up with a few situations where you have fans who you’ve let get a little too close, to where it starts getting weird. They are fans, but they also want to be friends. So sometimes, and I’m not there yet since I haven’t been doing this long enough, but I can imagine guys like Hanson who must have some freaky fans. I just wish people would ask questions because they care about your music, and not just because of the guy you are on stage.
You’re not into the whole “cult of celebrity” then?
Right, I don’t want people showing up because they think I’m cool. I want them to show up because they believe in what I’m doing and because the music moved them.